The University of Alabama
Center for Academic Success
124 Osband

Everyone should feel somewhat anxious before they begin to take a test. Anxiety becomes a problem when it begins to interfere with a student's ability to think logically or remember facts. Physical symptoms of real test anxiety include tense muscles, sweaty palms, a pounding heart, and feeling faint or nauseous. Cognitive symptoms include the inability to remember simple things, illogical thinking, and mental blocks.

In dealing with test anxiety one needs to deal with both the physical symptoms and the cognitive or mental aspects of test anxiety. Psychologists recommend certain techniques that have proven to be extremely successful if practiced and used correctly. The key is that these techniques must be practiced ahead of time to really work. There is no magic cure for test anxiety; overcoming it requires practice and persistence.

1. Relaxation
A state of anxiety is incompatible with a state of relaxation, so training in relaxation techniques is by far the most commonly recommended treatment for dealing with any type of anxiety. Systematic relaxation and desensitization have been used successfully by psychologists for many years. These procedures involve only learning two things: Learning to relax all of your muscles, and while you are relaxed imagining the anxiety producing situation. The procedure is outlined below. For a more thorough discussion refer to one of the books listed as references at the end of this handout.

The relaxation procedure involves systematically tensing and then relaxing different groups of muscles in your body:

  1. Begin the procedure by either sitting in a comfortable chair or lying down. Move your arms toward the center of your body and bend both arms at the elbow. Tighten your hands into fists and simultaneously tense the muscles in your upper arms and shoulders. Hold for ten seconds and then relax for fifteen to twenty seconds.

  2. Tense your face muscles by wrinkling your forehead and cheek muscles. Hold for ten seconds then relax.

  3. Tense the muscles in your chest for fifteen seconds and then relax. Repeat this procedure for all the different parts of your body while telling yourself that you are becoming more and more relaxed. Pay particular attention to the muscles in your neck and back since these muscles become tense easily.

  4. After ten or fifteen minutes you will find that your body is completely relaxed.

If you practice this technique over a period of weeks you will find that it becomes easier and easier to achieve a state of complete relaxation. While you are in a state of complete relaxation you then need to begin to visualize yourself in situations that tend to produce anxiety. For example, while you are relaxed, imagine yourself the night before the test. If this does not produce anxiety, then imagine yourself the morning of the test or walking to the room where the test will be given. If any of these images begins to produce anxiety, you will need to practice your relaxation techniques and calm yourself back down. Eventually you should get to the point where you can imagine yourself actually taking the test while remaining completely relaxed.

This technique has been shown to be better than 90% effective if it is used properly, however, they need to be practiced for several weeks to be really effective. You cannot wait until you experience an episode of test anxiety and then try to relax. It will not work..

2. Attitude and Mental Preparation
We tend to create either positive or negative feelings about ourselves through the things we think about in a given situation. Anxiety is created by a personís thoughts or expectations about what is likely to happen. The remedy for dealing with the cognitive or mental aspects of test anxiety is cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is a process of examining the irrational messages one sends to oneself concerning the outcome of tests and replacing the irrational negative messages with positive messages.

What one feels is a by-product of what one thinks. The meaning of an event lies not within the event itself but rather in the interpretation of the event. Test anxiety is not caused by the test but rather by the meaning that the individual attaches to the test. If you mentally tell yourself that you are not going to do well or that you have not studied enough, then you will have an emotional reaction that is consistant with that message. The emotional message will be anxiety because the messages are negative or threatening.

In order to change their thoughts about themselves students must first realize that they do in fact have a negative self image. Before a test do you feel guilty for not having studied enough? Do you feel that others in the class know more than you do? Do you feel that other students seem to get better grades without as much effort? Do you feel you are not really smart enough to succeed at The University of Alabama? If you find that you have subconscious doubts about your ability, or you find yourself thinking negative thoughts before a test, then you need to change your thinking about yourself. In order to have a positive self-image, you need to find things that your can feel positive about. In dealing with test anxiety you have to really feel that you have studied all you can and that you are really prepared for the test. Initially this may mean that you have to study harder than you have ever studied before in order to feel positive about your preparation. You donít want to leave any room for self-doubt to creep in.

3. Real Studying
Studying in college is different than studying in high school. Studying in college is not just reading the textbook and reading your notes over and over. Students who just read over the material may think that they have studied, but then find out during a test that they donít know the material as well as they thought they did. If, on a multiple choice test you find that two or three of the answers look right, then you do not know the material well enough. In reality there is only one right answer and the other possible answers are wrong for various reasons. In college you are expected to know and understand concepts, theories, and how various things are related. You have to know the material very very thoroughly in order to make an A on a college test. Often students do not spend the time required to really understand the material thoroughly. Real studying involves thinking, analyzing, writing things down, organizing the material in a meaningful way, and figuring out ahead of time what will be on the test.

An effective way to deal with test anxiety in a particular course is to study for a test so thoroughly that there is no way that you can do poorly. This may mean spending two to three times the amount of time and effort studying that you normally spend. If you thoroughly understand everything that might possibly be on the test, your confidence level will be very high and there will not be any room for self-doubt or self-defeating behaviors.

References: (available in the CAS)

  • Devine, J. H., & Kylen, D.W. (1979) How to beat test anxiety and score higher on your exams. Barronís Educational Series, Inc. Hauppauge, NY. (Sax B5)

  • Mitchell, C. (1987) Math anxiety: What it is and what to do about it. Action Press. Tempe AZ. (Sax B4)